It was a sad day for OPRF High School when Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams announced her retirement. However, now might be just the right time and environment for the communities of Oak Park and River Forest to decide to reach for equality through education.

When I graduated from Hawthorne (now Julian) in 1947, OPRF High School was rated one of the top 10 high schools in the United States. Forty-five years later, after a very critical article by Wednesday Journal about the high school, I became a volunteer. My first student was a very polite African-American freshman who was taking Western European history. He had graduated from Emerson (now Brooks) as a B and C student; however, he was a fifth-grade reader. His mother was very disappointed that he was having so much difficulty at the high school.

After three years at OPRF, I realized that volunteering at the grammar school level made more sense. I have been at Irving School for 24 years and have enjoyed the experience. The pandemic has eliminated volunteering since March.

Since the 1980s, U.S. high schools have decreased from No. 1 worldwide to No. 26 today out of 36 industrial countries. Education became a lower priority and there are inconsistencies among various school systems. Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, District 97 and District 200 did not exchange information on students because of the privacy issue. One example was a young white student from the junior high with no grade better than a D, who comes to the high school, which has no idea of his lack of interest in education.

Besides Irving, I have spent a lot of time at a private school and two charter schools. I have seen better methods in handling children who are well behind grade level. If we can’t offer a quality education at OPRF for 85-90 percent of the students, then where else can it happen? Oak Park is 3,000 acres, and I would bet with over 55,000 residents, we may have more doctors, lawyers, professors and other advance-degreed people than any area that size in our country. We also have two universities (Dominican and Concordia in River Forest) that have a school of Education that could and do offer after-school help to those students who are behind.

In reading many books about current education, I discovered that only one school district in the country had significantly reduced the achievement gap between whites and minorities. It was in Maryland where the superintendent had been on the job for 12 years and he was in charge with K through 12. Another piece of information was the fact that at the third-grade level, you can definitely identify those students who need extra help to get on track to reach grade level in reading and math. 

If the superintendent covered K-12, plans could be put into action to help bring students up to date. Presently the elementary school has the students through fifth grade and then they are off to middle school for three years. With one school system, there is a better opportunity to develop methods to help many more students get to grade level. There hasn’t been any real progress since 1994.

Interestingly, KIPP Charter Schools were founded in 1994 by a graduate of OPRF, Michael Feinberg and a friend. There are now 225 KIPP schools around the country. The private school I am involved with takes students who are mainly underperforming in the Chicago Public School system in fifth grade. Using a popular teaching method and putting two hours into reading each day — both classroom teaching and private reading — these students’ average reading level is near 10th grade by the time they graduate. They have close to the same success with math. They do spend more time in school. Is it possible for students who are well behind to catch up during a short school day?

We know that our schools will continue to receive students who are not equipped to handle the curriculum. I paid for some Dominican students to work with a dozen Irving students after school for an hour. D97 found some money and decided to take over the program with teachers.

We know there are some young people who have no interest in school and having an alternative would be helpful. We also know that if you are in a class you don’t understand, you will be very unhappy.

We have had five or six superintendents at OPRF since Don Offermann and about the same for D97 after Jack Fagan. They were both in their jobs over 10 years. Perhaps we should try to hire locally? Consolidating into one school district would save money and more eyes would be seeing where more effort needs to be placed.

The inner-city schools I am involved with are all African-American or Hispanic. These students perform well. The discipline is strong, but each student is given support because many come from a difficult situation. I expect that the Oak Park schools offer similar support. However, if the teaching continues on with no ability to catch up to grade level, a student will probably be a discipline problem and that leads to the discussion of inequity. We might even need a class to get them up to grade level in reading, which is the only way they can move forward.

We need equity, but it can’t happen if those students who are behind through no fault of their own, don’t get the opportunity to catch up. If 5 or 10 percent need extra help, can’t our well-paid school system develop a program to make that happen? 

Maybe talk to Michael Feinberg.

Jack Flynn is a River Forest resident and a longtime education advocate.

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